Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Red Buckeye

I have a fondness for Red Buckeyes.  They were one of the first wildflowers that I learned to identify in Texas.  They are one of the earliest bloomers along Barton Creek, and they have bright red, tubular flowers that they hold right at eye level, like a trail-side banner announcing the arrival of spring.  Buckeyes also have distinctive, palmately-compound leaves shaped like five-sided stars.  Their leaves emerge even earlier than their flowers, all bright green and shiny and so stiffly-creased that they remind me of newborn horses struggling to stand on all four legs.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) new spring leaves

I first met the buckeyes, the Aesculus genus, in northern Ohio.  I was an undergrad doing a research project and my mission was to survey the understory plants of floodplain forests.  The problem was that it was winter, and winter in northern Ohio was no joke – biting cold, lots of snow, and not a leaf to be found on any of the young trees that I was trying to identify.  I had to learn to distinguish between the mess of sticks that was the winter forest understory using branching patterns and overwintering buds, and I quickly found that, among temperate trees, alternate branching was more common than opposite branching.  If mycologists had their "LBM's," or little brown mushrooms, so many average-looking, average-size mushrooms, that winter I struggled with the "ABB's," or alternate brown buds, so many alternate-branched trees with frustratingly average-looking brown buds.

What saved me were the opposite-branched trees – the maples, the ashes, and the buckeyes – and their uncomplicated branches.  The Ohio Buckeyes (Aesculus glabra) were particularly easy to spot, with thick, opposite branches and fat, shiny, many-scaled buds that stood out even in the stark Ohio winter.  I am a buckeye, they shouted, and they were common in the most disturbed and saddest floodplain sites that I visited.  They became early friends, lending me a sense of competence long before I could tell an elm twig from a cherry twig just by the angles and lines, and inspired me to keep on with my baggies of twigs and identification keys.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) overwintering buds

A couple of years later, when I moved to Austin, discovering the Red Buckeyes (Aesculus pavia) along the Greenbelt was a reunion of sorts.  Just as their relatives had in Ohio, the Red Buckeyes stood out in contrast to the late winter landscape, with fat terminal buds that swelled and turned red as the new spring leaves began to emerge.  Even more amazing, these familiar shrubs produced amazingly showy tubular flowers in clusters of red to pink to peach, flowers that I would expect to see on display in a botanical garden, not in flower in early spring in the xeric woodlands of central Texas.  I had trouble believing that these beauties were native wildflowers.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) flowers

Two varieties of Red Buckeye are native to central Texas – the common, red-flowered variety (Aesculus pavia var. pavia), which grows throughout the southeastern US as a small tree or large shrub, and a yellow-flowered shrub (Aesculus pavia var. flavescens) that is endemic to the western Edwards Plateau.  West of Austin, in the midst of the Hill Country, the two varieties hybridize and form peach- to pink- to orange-flowered varieties.  The showy flowers of both varieties appear in early spring, February to April, attracting hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees.  For me, spring has officially sprung when the buckeyes along the Greenbelt begin to bloom.

This year, the buckeyes began blooming later than usual due to the cold weather of early February, and it took three trips to the Greenbelt over the course of four weeks to document the shift from fat buds to open flowers. In mid-February, when the buckeyes begin blooming in some mild years, the overwintering buds were fattening and becoming more visible against the backdrop of late-winter browns but were showing no signs of opening into leaves yet.

Buckeye buds not yet open (February 19)

By late February, the buds on many buckeye shrubs had begun to open, turning pink as the leaves within began to expand.  On a few of the buckeyes, spring leaves were beginning to emerge, looking newborn, perfectly green, and not yet worn, torn, or faded by the rigors of the upcoming season.

Buckeye buds opening (February 26)

By mid-March, most of the buckeye shrubs had leafed out but were not yet flowering, still waiting for warmer, longer days and a stronger guarantee that the cold of winter was gone for good.

Buckeye after leaf out with flower stalk (March 13)

But a few buckeyes had begun to flower, officially beginning spring at the Greenbelt.  With the start of the central Texas summer less than two months away, that means that this spring, as with most springs, promises to be our shortest, fastest season.

Red Buckeyes begin flowering (March 13)

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